Honduras, home to 10.3 million people, is precisely the country American writer O. Henry had in mind when he coined the term “banana republic” in 1904. Plagued by violence, poverty and corruption, its former president is a convicted drug dealer. For a time, it also endured the dubious distinction of being the world’s murder capital.
But no longer. At the end of 2022, its homicide rate stood at 38.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, ranking it fourth after El Salvador (52.0), Jamaica (43.8) and Lesotho (43.6). Even so, says the United Nations, residents of Honduras are still more likely to get killed than people in nearby Belize (37.8 homicides per 100,000), Venezuela (36.7), South Africa (36.4) or Nigeria (34.5).
Indeed, progress comes painfully slow in Honduras, as Javier Efraín Bú Soto can attest.
“We want to change the international image Honduras has had, coming from a very controversial past,” he recently told The Washington Diplomat. “Honduras has a lot to offer, and we are moving in the right direction.”
In December, Bú became his country’s new ambassador to the United States, representing the government of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya—the first female president in Honduran history, and wife of the deposed former president, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya.
On July 28, 2009, the Honduran military, acting on the orders of Brig. Gen. Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez, forced Zelaya from power and put the president on a plane to Costa Rica while still in his pajamas.
At the time, Zelaya’s detractors said the populist leader wanted to follow in the footsteps of Venezuela’s then-president, Hugo Chávez, by changing the Honduran constitution to let him remain in office indefinitely. His supporters denied that, accusing Vásquez and the Honduran military — backed by the country’s political and business elite — of staging a coup d’état with tacit support from Washington as retribution for Zelaya’s efforts to spread the country’s wealth to its impoverished masses.
Bú insists that what happened 14 years ago was a “military and civilian coup” which had no constitutional basis.
“President Zelaya was forced out of his house, and then forced out of the country. The US and the entire international community condemned the coup, but some sectors supported it,” he said. “It was a very tough time for our country, and we’re still suffering the consequences.”
Indeed, Honduras remains one of the poorest, most unequal countries in Latin America, with rampant drug trafficking, endemic corruption and shoddy rule of law. But thankfully, in November 2021, said Bú, “we had a democratic election that overwhelmingly chose our now-president, Xiomara Castro. We can say democracy came back in 2021.”
New ambassador is a Washington veteran
Bú, 42, isn’t exactly a newcomer to the nation’s capital. Along with his wife, 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, he’s been living in Washington for the past 15 years. A native of Tegucigalpa, the ambassador comes from a prominent Honduran family; his mother served as consul in Galveston, Texas, and his grandfather was speaker of the Honduran parliament.
Today, Honduras maintains 14 consulates in major US cities and is looking to open several more in Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Tampa.
Bú, who had served as chargé d’affaires since February 2022, was first assigned to Washington in 2009 as legal attaché, during a time of grave political crisis following Zelaya’s removal.
Previously, Bú worked in the private sector as managing director of Group BG, where he managed State Farm and other insurance franchises in the DC metro area. Before that, he was a public servant in Honduras—first as a law clerk at the nation’s Supreme Court, and later for the Institute of Property’s land title division, where he worked on a World Bank-funded program on issuance of rural land titles.
Bú has a dual master’s degree from Washington’s American University in law and government, and in international business law. He also has a J.D. from the Technological University of Central America (UNITEC) in Tegucigalpa.
Since the chaos of 2009, Honduras has seen a wave of violent crime and natural disasters including hurricanes that have caused billions of dollars of damage to coffee and banana exports. Yet in the past few years, the homicide rate has come down—a reflection, Bú says—of increased vigilance at the highest levels.
“Honduras has done a lot of security reforms. Our police forces have now been restored to civilian control, and are constantly being vetted, and we have expanded our police coverage,” he said. “Our prisons are also under civilian control, and we are working extremely hard to fight the endemic corruption that was left by past governments.”
In April 2022, former President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the United States to face drug and arms trafficking charges. The president’s brother, Tony, a former Honduran congressman, had previously been arrested by US authorities and in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking 185 tons of cocaine; he was also implicated in at least two murders.
One of the biggest hot-button issues in US politics today is illegal immigration, particularly from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The debate has been exacerbated by high-profile criminal cases such as the recent massacre in Cleveland, Texas, in which Mexican national Francisco Oropesa gunned down five people, all Honduran immigrants, in their own home—including a 9-year-old boy—after his neighbors had complained about Oropesa firing an AR-15 rifle in his back yard after midnight.
“The Government of Honduras deeply regrets the loss of these valuable lives and accompanies all their loved ones in their pain,” the Honduran Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by CNN, which reported that Oropesa had entered the US illegally and been deported by immigration officials at least four times since 2009. “We demand that the pertinent authorities arrest the perpetrator of this terrible event and apply the full weight of the law.”
Tough new US immigration policy meets fierce criticism
Facing fierce criticism for policies that have led to unprecedented waves of immigrants trying to cross the into the United States from Mexico, the Biden administration recently announced tough new measures that would disqualify the vast majority of such people from being able to seek asylum at the southern border.
According to the New York Times, the policy “would allow rapid deportation of anyone who had failed to request protection from another country while en route to the United States, or who did not notify border authorities through a mobile app of their plans to seek asylum.
The policy is to take effect on May 11 with the expected termination of Title 42, a Trump-era health emergency rule that has allowed border authorities to swiftly expel migrants back to Mexico. The new rule would then remain in place for two years.
Yet the Times article cited angry reactions from nonprofits that represent immigrants.
“The Biden administration’s proposed rule would send asylum seekers back to danger, separate families, and cost lives, as human rights advocates have been asserting for weeks,” Jane Bentrott, counsel at Justice Action Center, told the newspaper. “It is in direct contravention of President Biden’s campaign promises to reverse Trump’s racist, xenophobic immigration policies, and give all folks seeking safety a fair shot at asylum.”
Nevertheless, Bú cited last year’s launch of a US-Honduran “strategic dialogue” as progress.
“We had our first meeting in April of last year, and a second meeting in January 2023,” he said. “Our relationship with the US is very good. In the past, it had been dormant, but we have reactivated it and are reinforcing the relationship. In that sense, we’re cooperating in programs to address the root causes of migration, and we are seeing results.”
UN figures show that the number of Hondurans apprehended at the US-Mexico border for attempting to migrate illegally to the United States dropped by 43% from 2021 to 2022.
“This is thanks to a combination from the new government, public trust, optimism by the people, and also USAID [US Agency for International Development] programs by the Biden administration that give positive results,” he said. “However, we’ve seen an increase in transit migration to Honduras from other countries—19,000 crossings in 2022, up from 1,500 in 2021. These include Nicaraguans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Ecuadoreans and even Ukrainians.
‘Central America Forward’ and recognition of China
Bú also cited initiatives such as Central America Forward, a $4.2 billion regional investment program launched in March by Vice President Kamala Harris. According to a fact sheet issued by the State Department, the new initiative includes the following:
- A new US government Northern Central America Investment Facilitation Team, which will support clean energy infrastructure development, facilitate private sector operations, and promote sustainable economic development in the region.
- Increased access to US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) financing for private sector-led projects in northern Central America, with a focus on enhancing economic opportunities for underserved communities where financing can have the highest development and migration reduction impacts.
- UAID workforce development programs to train youth in skills demanded by the private sector and provide for the workforce development needs of the future.
- The Central America Service Corps, announced in June 2022, which will offer young people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras paid community service opportunities, mentorship and a path to future employment.
- A “Good Governance, Good Jobs” Declaration outlining US commitments to combat corruption and protect labor rights in the region.
- A Business-Enabling Environment Action Plan, which will leverage new private sector investments to promote anti-corruption, good governance, and labor compliance while fostering a healthy investment climate.
- New worker-driven Corporate Social Responsibility tools and targeted approaches to address the needs of the most vulnerable populations, with a focus on empowering women via the “In Her Hands” initiative.
Not all decisions taken by the government of Xiomara Castro have been well-received. Earlier this year, Honduras severed its longstanding relations with Taiwan in favor of mainland China—delighting officials in Beijing but frustrating Taipei. The decision leaves only 13 nations still in Taiwan’s camp, including Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay and a handful of Caribbean and Pacific island microstates.
Asked to defend the switch, Bú offered no apologies.
“This is a sovereign decision and there should be no concerns whatsoever; 178 countries have diplomatic relations with China,” he said. “This was also a campaign promise of President Castro. She is committed to opening our country to new markets.”
Bú added: “China is the second-biggest economy in the world. We can still always have a commercial relationship with Taiwan, but this was just an initial step to broaden our export markets and increase investment in our country that we desperately need.”